Katherine Barclay straightened from stirring the laundry in the iron pot. She swept loose tendrils of hair back from her face and schooled her features into patience before she turned to her sixteen-year-old sister-in-law. Mary ran into the yard of the garrison, not wearing a wrap to protect her from the winds sweeping across the coastal plains. The young woman was recovering from a fever and didn’t have the sense to cover her head on this frosty Texas day?
But Mary revered Kit, and while that admiration frequently tried Kit’s patience, she had to remain conscious of it. There was no living with the girl if Kit hurt her feelings.
“What is it?” Kit asked, at the same time Mary blurted, “A man is riding this way!”
Kit’s heart thumped. Could it be John? Had the word they’d received of his death on the Texas border been a mistake?
She tamped down that hope as she’d trained herself to do. Fear rose in its place. Only she, Mary and her mother-in-law, Agnes, remained at the garrison standing guard between the Karankawa tribe and Stephen Austin’s colony of San Felipe. The other inhabitants had fled. John had urged Kit to accompany him on his mission back to the States, but their young son, Daniel, had been sick. She’d feared traveling would make him worse. Agnes and Mary had agreed to stay with her, a fact she’d been grateful for when she received word that her husband had been killed in a skirmish with outlaws, and when she’d buried her son a week later.
Before regret could squeeze her heart, she closed the door on it. She couldn’t dwell on the past now. She was in charge. As much as she loved Agnes and Mary, they were too frail for this frontier life. And now their safety was threatened.
She released the stirring stick she’d been gripping and flexed her cold, aching fingers. “Where is this man?”
“He’s coming from the northeast. We saw him through the window.”
Another transgression. They shouldn’t have had the window set in the fort wall open, not when the January wind had such a bite. The last thing Kit needed was to bury her sister-in-law if she caught another fever. Kit stepped away from the laundry fire and snatched her wrap from the chair nearby. She folded the woolen fabric around herself as she headed for the steps leading to the top of the wooden cabin that sat just inside the fort wall.
“Stay here,” she ordered over her shoulder as Mary began to follow.
The command did no good, and the young woman trotted behind her up the steps.
Wind whipped at Kit’s already wild hair and tore through her thin cloak and damp dress. The low gray clouds offered no hope of sun. She buried her hands in the folds of her cloak and scanned the flat horizon.
There, astride a beautiful roan, slumped a man in a saddle, heading straight toward the garrison.
Alarm shot through her as she realized she’d left her loaded rifle beside the chair where her cloak had been. She cursed her lack of foresight. She hadn’t expected him to be so close.
She whirled to run for the rifle when a movement from the man caught her eye. She turned back just in time to see him drop out of the saddle and remain motionless on the road.
Drunk, was her first thought. Or hurt. Or sick.
She stiffened. No more sickness. She couldn’t bear expending her energy on someone else she couldn’t help.
She stared at the man, so still in the golden dry grass, his horse standing patiently beside him, and gnawed her lip in indecision.
Mary gripped her arm, huddling against Kit for warmth. “What are we going to do? Just leave him out there?”
What could she do? Bring him into the fort not knowing who he was, what his purpose was? They were three women with little means of protecting themselves against someone who meant them harm. And if he was indeed sick, could she risk the three of them contracting his illness?
But could she just leave him out there to die? Then what? Watch carrion destroy his body? Hardly a Christian act.
Confused and tired of making all these decisions, she crossed the yard and closed her fingers around the reassuring metal of the rifle barrel. With the gun in one hand, she tucked her arm around Mary’s shoulders. The girl shivered uncontrollably, her teeth chattering. Kit removed her own wrap and folded it about the girl. “The first thing we’re doing is getting you warm before you sicken again.”
That would also buy her time to think.
Agnes waited in the doorway of the garrison commander's quarters, the rooms they had claimed for themselves when they realized no one would return to the fort this winter. The older woman hurried forward to gather her daughter, but her worried eyes sought Kit.
“Did you see him? He’s fallen.”
“I saw.” Kit ushered the women into the room and closed the door. Immediately, she felt warmer, but she moved to stand by the hearth anyway, arms wrapped around her middle.
Agnes peered out the window, past the parchment paper covering it. “What are we going to do?”
“Has he moved?”
Agnes shook her head. “He could be dead.”
He could be. And that left the beautiful horse, a horse they could use. If he was sick or drunk, he was hardly a threat.
Decision made, Kit reached into the box over the fireplace and drew out the pistol John had left her. Her fingers flexed when she opened the box, as the memory of how he’d taught her to shoot it stabbed through her heart.
Before he’d brought her to this place from her home near New Orleans, he wanted her to be able to defend herself. So he took her to an open field with this pistol and the rifle still in the yard. He’d taught her how to load each, his big, sure hands guiding hers through the motions. He’d shown her how to sight down the barrel, his arms around her, his strong chest at her back, his muscled arms along hers. She could still feel the heat of his breath against the back of her neck, the way his fingers curved around hers, his soft chuckle as she flinched at the sound. He hadn’t allowed her to back down, hadn’t allowed her to quit until she could load each gun in under two minutes.
Then, when her arms had trembled from lifting the heavy rifle, he’d taken her home and made love to her.
Tears swam in her eyes. She missed him so much. It wasn’t right that she should lose them both, her husband and her son, so she had nothing left.
“Kit?” Mary rested a hesitant hand on Kit’s arm.
Kit drew in a deep breath, straightening her shoulders and blinking back the tears she didn’t have time to shed. She set the box on the table and tucked the heavy pistol into the pocket of her dress.
“You’re going out there?” Agnes’s strident voice rang in the small room. “What if it’s a trap? If he’s just using illness as a ruse to get in here?”
“He has no way of knowing we’re the only three here. That’s why I fire the cannon every day, so anyone around will think the soldiers are still here.”
“We barely have enough food for ourselves,” Agnes pointed out.
That was true, and their supply was dwindling. Kit herself had only taken a small amount of porridge this morning in an attempt to make their supplies stretch. What would they do when they ran out of the oats and wheat flour they had stored in the root cellar? They’d already used the dried meat and root vegetables she’d stored. Her skills with the rifle weren’t nearly good enough to hunt, even if she were brave enough to leave the fort. She had to hope that what they had would last until spring, when they could leave this place. At least it would be warmer, and there would be more opportunities to find food. And maybe the Indians would be on the move, away from them, following the game.
“His horse looks healthy enough.” She met Agnes’s gaze.
“Riding him would be dangerous,” Mary asserted.
“We can butcher him,” Kit said softly, though the words pained her to say.
Mary gasped, her brown eyes opening wide.
Kit clamped her jaw and ignored the outrage. She had to. She strode through the door and tried to shut it behind her, but as usual, Mary was there, still in Kit’s wrap. Kit would need that to venture out of the fort, though the heavy cloth would limit her mobility. She picked up her loaded rifle by the barrel, pivoted and returned to the window, where Agnes watched the stranger, her body vibrating with anxiety.
Kit raised that anxiety by thrusting the rifle at the older woman. “If he makes any sudden movements when I’m out there, shoot this.”
Agnes raised her hands, palms out, and stared at the gun in horror. “I can’t shoot a man.”
Kit bit back a sigh of frustration. “You don’t have to shoot him. Just make him think you are. He doesn’t know who is in here, remember? Please, Mother. I need your help.” The last words, words she rarely spoke, dragged out of her.
Agnes must have realized what the plea cost Kit, because she pursed her lips, lowered her hands and reached for the rifle.
After a quick review of the weapon, Kit retrieved her wrap from her terrified sister-in-law and marched out of the room, hesitating only a moment at the fort’s giant wooden doors, which she hadn’t opened in weeks. Not allowing herself to think of what would happen to her family if she died out there, she tugged one door open wide enough to slip out.
The stranger was farther from the walls than she had realized. Every step away from the fort made her feel more vulnerable to Indians and outlaws. She reassured herself by remembering they hadn’t seen any of the Karankawa tribe in a week or more—the days blended together—and by pressing her hand to the gun resting heavily against her thigh in her skirt pocket. Though the land was open for miles, every brush of high grass against her skirt sent a chill of alarm through her.
She expected the horse to react to her approach, but he merely lifted his head and widened his nostrils. Her gaze returned to the man sprawled face down in the dirt, one arm pinned beneath his big body, one long leg curled out, the other straight behind him. His hat had tumbled off into the grass, revealing dark hair with a touch of red.
He was breathing. She could see the rise and fall of his back beneath the wool coat, could see the dance of dust in front of his mouth with every exhalation.
He was young, younger than John had been, close to her own age, his face long and lean and bristled with reddish stubble, his cheeks ruddy. His full lips were chapped. She knew before she reached him that he was feverish.
But he was alive. What was she to do now?
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